December 2, 2014
The Strange Library combines two things that I love dearly: libraries and strange supernatural occurrences. The story begins with a boy returning his books to the library. When he asks the librarian for help finding more books, she directs him to a confined room in the basement where a small old man helps him locate three gigantic volumes on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. However, when he tries to check the books out, he is told that he must instead read the books there, in the reading room, from cover to cover. Now trapped in the library, he must find a way home without arousing the suspicion of the librarian.
I was introduced to Haruki Murakami through his short story “Super Frog Saves Tokyo,” which was required reading for a writing seminar on magical realism. This genre has its roots in fantasy and the supernatural, but works on a much smaller scale. Often, the stories take place in a world that is very similar to our own and hint at the eerie, strange, and magical things that may exist all around us. This novella is further proof that Murakami has truly mastered this genre.
I have always been fascinated with the thought of mystical creatures hiding in plain sight, and this story precisely satisfies that curiosity. The fact that this boy had been to this library dozens of times and had never even known of the existence of the basement and its creeping labyrinth makes me wonder what lies beneath my own library. And while it is easy enough to write off the entire story as a bad dream or childhood fantasy, Murakami leaves plenty of clues to suggest that this boy really did encounter these fantastic characters, though it is likely something he will push the experience to the far corners of his mind and remember it in the future as a distant nightmare. Both the story itself and its tone remind me of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a short novel about a man who returns to his childhood home, where memories of magic, witches, and a nightmarish encounter come flooding back to him.
I’m also a sucker for unique book design. The Strange Library is packaged in such a way that it is impossible to remove its slipcover without damaging the book itself. Instead, the front cover opens like an envelope, and the story begins immediately on the next page, in its large, courier font. A large eye is printed on the inside of the front cover, and, due to the connected slipcover, it looms over the pages as you read. Other illustrations scatter the pages of the book, and near the end, the other eye appears to complete the set. The eerie pair glares at the reader and underscores the climax. The following pages mirror the action, similar to a comic book in its construction.
Chip Kidd, who designed this edition, also experiments with different font sizes and colors for effect. Some lines, delivered by a young girl, are printed in blue, softening their impact and giving them a ghostly appearance. The final lines are printed smaller than the rest, as if they should be read in a whisper, and are centered in the page with simple, quiet finality.
If you are a fan of the peculiar, the absurd, or the bizarre, you should take an hour or two to read Murakami’s simple and beautiful novella The Strange Library.